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Setting Service Standards

A key step is to give your staff specific customer-service goals.

By Helen Thompson

Not too long ago, an insurance office approached Karen Leland to help its staff members improve their customer-service skills. Leland, the author of Customer Service for Dummies, immediately noticed one change the office needed to make. But when she suggested it, she was met with resistance. “They balked at having everyone answer the phone with the same greeting and asked, ‘Won’t this make us sound like robots to our clients?’” says Leland.

It’s a good question. “Customers see standards as evidence of service consistency and reliability,” she says. “A few months later we conducted a survey for that company, and many clients had positive comments about the new phone standards.”

Setting service standards accomplishes two things for your organization, according to Leland: It’s a powerful way to shape how clients see you, and it’s a great way to make your service goals measurable.

Before and After: Set Your Standards
General Specific
Be friendly
Answer phone promptly
Return calls in a timely fashion
Be attentive
Be empathic
Answer phone in three rings
Return calls within 24 hours
Make and hold eye contact
Always apologize

“Good” is subjective
How do you make sure that everyone in your company meets the level of service you aspire to? Most companies have guidelines for providing good service, but Leland offers several strategies for translating a general service quality into a specific service standard.

“With 10 people defining ‘friendly,’ you’re going to get 10 different answers.”
—Karen Leland

A general service quality describes how you want to treat somebody—in a friendly, courteous, responsive, prompt or knowledgeable way. “Companies write their customer-service policies telling staff to exhibit these qualities,” Leland says. “It’s not that those are bad goals; in fact, they are worthy goals. But the problem is that they mean different things to different people. With 10 people defining ‘friendly,’ you’re going to get 10 different answers.”

Be specific
So, here you are, with a list of wonderful customer-service qualities you want to transform into standards. You can start, Leland says, by drilling down into the meaning of these qualities and coming up with certain behaviors and actions that will enable your staff to acquire those qualities.

Leland offers seven criteria to keep in mind when creating your service standards. If your standards measure up to the items on this list, you have an effective customer-service policy in place.

  1. They’re specific. Your standards should tell everyone precisely what’s expected of them. Don’t leave anyone guessing.
  2. They’re concise. You don’t need to spell out the philosophy behind the action. Just get right to the point and spell out what needs to be done.
  3. They’re measurable. Using actions for your customer-service standards means they’re observable and quantifiable. One way to ensure this is to use verbs instead of adjectives when writing them down, says Leland.
  4. They’re based on the customer, not on industry standards. For example, if business attire might make some of your clients uncomfortable, then you might need to have different standards. “You want to fulfill your customers’ expectations, not keep up with the industry—especially when you have higher standards,” says Leland.
  5. They’re documented. Write them into job descriptions and performance reviews.
  6. They’re fairly enforced. Be consistent. Leland sees inconsistency more often than she’d like. “Standards that are enforced with some employees and not others erode so quickly that it’s not even funny,” she says. “If no reward is given to the person who is doing it, and there’s no criticism of the person who’s not doing it, why should either of them bother?”
  7. They’re jointly created. Leland says that the most effective standard is one that’s created by management and staff together, based on their mutual understanding of customer needs. “Your staff is on the front line and they talk to customers more often; involve them in the creation of your standards because they have the best idea of what those standards should be,” she adds.

It’s not just behavior
Leland emphasizes the fact that clients have an invisible scorecard that measures you on product, procedure and personal touches. Neglect any of these three areas, and your business will suffer. For instance, you may provide service to your client with a smile on your face and a song in your heart, but if you are difficult to reach, that good service won’t matter. If you make it difficult for your clients to do business with you, they’ll remember getting poor customer service from you.

But it’s normal to have to address one or two areas more than another. “Most companies have a strength in one area over the other two,” she says. “Your goal should be to become strong in all three.” Setting standards will help you with that, but Leland cautions that you shouldn’t develop them just for the personal contact part of good service, but for the procedural and product quality parts as well.


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